A Walesi Bárdok: The Bards of Wales
One of the best-known literary connections between Britain and Hungary comes in the shape of an epic ballad written in the mid-nineteenth century by the poet János Arany, who was a contemporary of Sándor Petőfi, the national poet of Hungary, who was killed in the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49. Arany was, indeed, a close friend of Petőfi, and his death in exile in Russia had a profound effect on Arany, as did the entire events of 1848-49. He later wrote a parabolic poem, Walesi Bárdok, about the Plantagenet King Edward’s crushing of Welsh Independence and his legendary mass murder of the country’s bards. It’s publication coincided with the visit of the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph to Hungary, at a time when there was a sense of Austrian oppression among many Hungarians, and suppression of dissent. It was not safe for poets to write openly of their hatred of the Empire, so Arany used his knowledge of British history and literature to compose a masterly yet thinly-veiled attack on the Hapsburg monarchy, leaving his Hungarian readers in little doubt as to whom his scorn was directed.
Appropriately, János Arany was born on the day after St David’s Day, the festival of the patron saint of Wales, on 2 March, 1817, in Nagyszalonta, Bihár County, then in Royal Hungary, but now part of Romania. He was the youngest of ten children, only two of whom lived beyond childhood. At the time of his birth, his older sister Sára was already married and his parents, György Arany and Sára Megyeri, were 60 and 44 years old, respectively. János Arany learned to read and write early on, and was reported to read anything he could find, both in Hungarian and in Latin. Since his parents needed support early in Arany’s life, he began working at the age of 14 as an associate teacher.
From 1833 he attended the Reformed Church College of Debrecen where he studied German and French, though he quickly became tired of scholarly life, and temporarily joined an acting troupe. Later on, he worked in Nagyszalonta, Debrecen, and Budapest as teacher, newspaper editor, and in various clerical positions.
In 1840 he married Julianna Ercsey (1816–1885). They had two children, Julianna, whose early death by pneumonia devastated the poet, and Lászlo who also became a poet and a collector of Hungarian folklore..
In 1845, he won the competition of the Kisfaludy Társaság (a literary society) with his writing, “Az elveszett alkotmány” (“The lost constitution” in English).
After Toldi, one of his most famous works, was published, he and Sándor Petőfi became close friends (see their letters: To János Arany by Petőfi and Reply to Petőfi by Arany). Petőfi’s death in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-9 had a great impact on him.
He was employed as a teacher in Nagykőrös where the local museum is named after him.
Arany was elected a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1858. He was the secretary-general of the Academy from 1865. Also, he was elected director of the Kisfaludy Society, the greatest literary association of Hungary.
The early death of his daughter, Julianna in 1865 marked the beginning of Arany’s hiatus as a poet. He did not write any original pieces until the summer of 1877, when he began working on his poetic cycle entitled Őszikék. Őszikék is substantially different from the previous works of Arany, concerning themes like elderliness, or the imminence of death.
He translated three dramas of Shakespeare into Hungarian, and they are considered to be some of the greatest translations into Hungarian in history; he also helped other Hungarian translators with his comments. He revealed a great preference for the spiritual world and poetry of Britain. The stimulating effect of translating Shakespeare roused a vivid echo in Arány, and he succeeded in transplanting the dramas of the bard into a Hungarian worthy of him.
The epic poetry of János Arany presents the legendary and historical past of his nation. The Death of King Buda (1864), the first part of a projected Hun trilogy is one of the best narrative poems in Hungarian literature. The other parts of the trilogy (Ildikó, and Prince Csaba) are unfinished. Arany died in Budapest on October 22, 1882.
One of his most famous poems is A Walesi Bárdok’ (The Bards of Wales). Arany wrote this poem when the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, visited Hungary for the first time after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Originally Arany was asked to write a poem to praise the Emperor but he wrote a piece concerning the campaigns of the Plantagenet King of England, Edward I, to subjugate the Welsh and trample over their culture. Arany was drawing a parallel here with Austria’s treatment of Hungary and the Hungarians.
János Arany is today considered as one of the greatest Hungarian poets beside Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, Miklós Radnoti and József Attila . His poems are among the most widely read works in Hungary, and children are required to memorise and recite A Walesi Bardok as part of the National Curriculum.
Here are some extracts, in a translation by Peter Zollman (1997), from The Bards of Wales (1857):
King Edward scales the hills of Wales
Upon his stallion.
“Hear my decree! I want to see,
My new dominion.
“Show me the yield of every field,
The grain, the grass, the wood!
Is all the land now moist and rich
With red rebellious blood?
And are the Welsh, the wretched Welsh,
A peaceful, happy folk?
I want them pleased, just like the beast
They harness in the yoke.”
“Sire, this jewel in the crown,
Your Wales is fair and good:
Rich is the yield of every
The grassland and the wood.
“And Sire, the Welsh, God’s gift, the Welsh,
So pleased they all behave!
Dark every hut, fearfully shut
And silent as the grave.”
King Edward scales the hills of Wales
Upon his stallion.
And where he rides dead silence hides
In his dominion.
He comes to high Montgomery
To banquet and to rest;
It falls on Lord Montgomery
To entertain the guest:
“Well then, you sirs, you filthy curs,
Who will now toast the king?
I want a bard to praise my deeds,
A bard of Wales to sing!”
They look askance with a furtive glance,
The noblemen of Wales,
Their cheeks turn white in deadly fright,
As crimson anger pales.
Deep silence falls upon the halls,
And lo, before their eyes,
They see an old man, white as snow,
An ancient bard to rise.
“I shall recite your glorious deeds
Just as you bid me, Sire,”
And death rattles in grim battles
As he touches the lyre.
“Our dead are plenty as the corn
When harvest is begun,
And as we reap and glean, we weep:
You did this, guilty one!”
“Off to the stake!” The King commands,
“This was churlishly hard.
Sing us, you there, a softer air,
You, young and courtly bard!”
“Maiden, don’t bear a slave! Mother,
Your babe must not be nursed!…”
A royal nod. He reached the stake
Together with the first.
But boldly and without a call
A third one takes the floor;
Without salute he strikes the lute,
His song begins to soar:
“The brave were killed, just as you willed,
Or languish in your gaols:
To hail your name or sing your fame
You’ll find no bard in Wales.
“He may be gone, but his songs live on –
The toast is: King beware!
You bear the curse and even worse
Of Welsh bards everywhere.”
“I’ll see to that! – Thunders the king –
You spiteful Welsh peasants!
The stake will toast you, every bard,
Who spurns my ordinance!”
Five hundred went singing to die,
Five hundred in the blaze,
But none would sing to cheer the king,
The loyal toast to raise. –
But over drums and piercing fifes,
Beyond the soldiers’ hails,
They swell the song, five hundred strong,
Those martyred bards of Wales.
George Szirtes et. al. (eds.) (1997), The Lost Rider: A bilingual anthology: The Corvina Book of Hungarian Verse. Budapest: Corvina.
What was What and Who was Who in Wales – Text for Slides below
Where in the World is Wales?
Wales is on the western side of the island of Great Britain, sharing a land border with England to its East and a sea border with Ireland to the West. The largest part of it is located along two great peninsulas, one in the south and the other in the north, with a long bay stretching between them. To the south is the Severn Estuary, now crossed by two road bridges, forming giant gateways into the country, at the end of which you have to pay a toll. So, although you don’t need your passport to enter Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom, you do need to pay (if, like most people, you do so using these bridges in the south).
Wales has so much natural beauty that some people call it ‘God’s own country’! It also has a unique and very beautiful language of its own, Welsh, which some people call ‘the language of heaven!’ However, many other people would agree with the anglo-Welsh poet, Dannie Abse:
(see picture with text below)
From Peaks to People
Much of the country is covered by huge mountains, like those in Snowdonia in the north, which rise to over three thousand feet from the coast. You can see these best from the large island of Anglesey, off the north Wales coast. In other areas, there are more gentle hills and valleys, sometimes with thick forests and woods. There are a large number of rivers, including the River Severn, which begins in mid-Wales as a trickle of water and then flows into England. These fast-flowing streams from the hills and mountains were what powered the early development of industry in Wales, though it was the vast mineral wealth discovered beneath them over the centuries, especially coal which led to the country’s development into the power-house of the industrial revolution. These attracted millions of workers to the mining and iron-producing areas of south Wales, not just from rural Wales, but also from the neighbouring counties of England.
Present into Past
The Welsh people have a strong sense of their own identity as the first British people, going back to Roman times. They are proud of their past, which is the subject of many songs and poems, and is very evident in their unique traditions and customs, different from many of those found in England. The National Anthem, Hen Wlad fyng nghadau (Land of My Fathers) is full of phrases remembering the heroic figures who fought to maintain these independent traditions and customs, as well as their distinctive language, still spoken by more than one in five of the population of just under three million. The majority of the population live in the industrial south of the country, especially along the coastal plain with its major cities. There are also major centres of population in the north, especially in the north-east, which also became a centre of heavy industry in the last two centuries. The people living in mid and west Wales still work in agriculture and small industries and businesses, many of which depend on tourism, since Wales remains one of the most popular destinations for holiday-makers from the English cities, as well as from countries further away.
Who were the Welsh?
Celts and Cymry
One of the earliest westward migrations in Europe, between about four thousand and two thousand BC, was made by peoples from Celtic tribes, speaking similar languages, whose descendants now live in Cornwall and Devon (south-west England), the Scottish highlands, Ireland, the Isle of Mann, Brittany (in modern-day France, hence the name Grande Bretagne) and Wales. These tribes, speaking something close to Scots and Irish Gaelic, became natives of the British Isles long before the English. In Welsh, the people of Wales call themselves Cymry, meaning ‘fellow-countrymen’, the name of their country is Cymru and their language is Cymraeg.
When the Romans successfully invaded what they called Britannia in 43 AD, adding it to their Empire, they quickly conquered most of the lowland areas of what we know today as England. However, they found it more difficult to take control of the ‘Celtic kingdoms’ in the north and west of the island. Caractacus, Caradoc in Welsh, the king of the Catavellauni, put up fierce resistance in battle until he was forced to flee further north, where he was arrested and handed over to Emperor Claudius in 51 AD. He was so impressed by Caractacus’ courage in defeat that he allowed him to live out the rest of his days as a free man in Rome. In 60 AD, the Roman Governer of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus attacked the Druids of Anglesey, the religious leaders of the Celtic tribes, and defeated the Rebellion led by Boudica. However, it wasn’t until 78 AD that the Roman conquest of Anglesey, and therefore their control of the western tribes, was completed by General Agricola.
However, large parts of mainland Britain were never fully conquered, including what we know today as Scotland, and the Romans never tried to invade Ireland. That’s why, to this day, the Scots and Irish Gaelic languages contain very few words used by the Romans, in their Latin language. The forts built by the occupying army, including Caerleon and Caerdydd (Cardiff), were small pockets of Roman culture set in uncertain or hostile territory. The native population continued to live much as it had always done. Some Britons traded with the forts and even settled there, but most ignored the Romans, whose main interest was in extracting mineral wealth from the hills. They did little to establish towns, which slowly grew around their forts, and most of the native population stayed on their farms. When the Romans began to withdraw from Britain in AD 410, four centuries of trade and settlement had left its mark on the remaining tribes, including their languages, which became Romano-British, but within a generation they separated into competing tribal kingdoms once more.
Cymraeg is all that remains of a written language which was spoken and written by the Romano-British who lived in several kingdoms from Cornwall to Cambria (Wales), to Cumbria (northern England) and on to Strathclyde (Scotland). It is from the last of these territories that the earliest known writings were made, dating from the sixth century. Welsh is very different from Scots and Irish Gaelic, but is similar to Breton, so much so that the traditional Breton onion sellers who used to bicycle through the Welsh valleys in the summer were able to communicate with their Welsh-speaking customers.
Britons, Saxons and Vikings
It was the invading Saxons of the sixth century who used their word wealas to describe the people whom they made ‘foreigners’ in their own land, though the idea that there was a mass migration into the west is a myth. The chieftains and warriors may have retreated to their forts in the hills and mountains, but recent genetic tests have shown that most of the farmers remained on their land, and mixed with the newcomers, gradually adapting to Saxon manners, customs and languages, and adopting some of them. The process was two-way. Many British place names continued to be used in the Saxon territories, including Afon or Avon, for river, and cwm or combe, for valley. However, eventually Anglo-Saxon languages overwhelmed the native British.
However, the Cambrian mountains did give the retreating ruling families and their scribes a means to protect their language and culture from Anglo-Saxon influence for centuries. Despite the construction of a dike, or ditch, by the Mercian King Offa, mainly to discourage sheep-rustling, he was more interested in securing his dominant position over the other Saxon kingdoms, and the Welsh were more at risk from attacks from the sea, by Irish and Scandinavian raiders. British monks recorded stories about the heroic battles fought by chieftains against the Saxons, one of whom, Artorius, or Arthur, became the basis for the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table of the English literature of later centuries. These monks also wrote down the stories and legends connected with the British saints, including David and Patrick.
There was no common form of ‘English’ at this time, but rather three different Saxon languages or dialects, Northumbrian (the root of Scottish English), Mercian (which eventually became the dominant form), and West Saxon. It wasn’t until around AD 1,000 that the word Englaland began to be used, though the Anglii (Angles) themselves were a minority group among the settlers, as were the Jutes who settled in Kent. The Welsh word for the English people is Saeson or Saxon, and the English language is Saesneg. A fragment of an early Welsh folk song tells of a young man going “with a heart like lead” to live in “the land of the Saxons.” However, the Anglo-Saxon language was far from being a standardised, written language, even in the time of Cnut, the Danish King of England, and Edward the Confessor. Latin, together with Christianity, had been brought into the Saxon kingdoms through Northumbria by multi-lingual British monks like Cuthbert and Cedd (Chad), as well as by St Augustine through Kent in AD 597. It remained the standard written language throughout the British Isles.
Norman Conquest? Broken yet unbowed
Following their Conquest of England from 1066-80, The Norman kings placed the security of the Welsh border in the hands of ‘marcher’ barons who were allowed to conquer new lands in Wales. They built castles and monasteries in south Wales, giving ‘manors’ for rent to both Anglo-Norman and Welsh tenants. They encouraged Anglo-Norman settlement of the countryside and created new, fortified towns such as Swansea. English place-names were used for new settlements, such as Fernhill and Oxwich, which grew next to Welsh villages. Meanwhile, Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, expanded his territory into Powys. However, the Norman kings left the native rulers of north and south Wales in place, provided they paid him homage. However, when Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed by the Normans in 1093, they established lordships over Gower, Kidwelly and Pembroke.
From the beginning of the twelfth century, the Norman lords began to build permanent stone castles. Kidwelly Castle began as a walled enclosure, to which round towers and an outer wall were added in the thirteenth century and a large gatehouse was added after 1300. Edward I saw castles in the eastern Mediterranean during his crusade (1270-2) and introduced the ‘concentric’ design into Britain in the 1280s. It relied on a ring of walls and towers around an open bailey, or courtyard, with a strengthened gatehouse. His Welsh castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech are classic examples of this design. As well as encircling Wales with these castles, some, like Conwy, provided a good way of setting up new towns under his control, within the outer walls. However, the cost of his eight castles in Wales almost bankrupted him.
Even at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the vast majority of the people still spoke Welsh. Despite the anglicising effect of intermarriage, education and industrialisation, the persistence of the Welsh language and culture is a remarkable story. At the beginning of the last century, two-thirds of the population was bilingual, and at its end one fifth claimed to be Welsh speakers. At the beginning of this century, Welsh is used in education, with every child learning it to sixteen, and it has equal status with English in law and administration. Road signs throughout the country are bilingual and the Welsh television channel is popular and successful. In the 1980s the British Government, so often hated by nationalists, made it its policy to support and subsidise the Welsh language. By contrast, English writing in Wales did not receive the same level of subsidy through the Welsh Arts Council. The strength of the Welsh language culture has also influenced the development of Anglo-Welsh language and culture. Actors such as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Sheen have a rich, spoken English which combines the perfect accuracy of standard, or received pronunciation, with the fluency of melody, lilt and resonance supplied by Welsh, with rounded vowels where most ‘Anglo-Saxon’ actors would flatten them.
Welsh also has a different word order, with the noun coming before the main verb, or the adjective coming after the noun. For example, a woman from the valleys, talking about a young man who had died, said “Pity it was that he died so early”. This was a direct translation of the Welsh structure into English. The (ungrammatical) use of the question tag ‘isn’t it?’ or the phrase ‘look you’ are further examples of direct translation in colloquial Welsh speech. Some Welsh words are used directly in English, like ‘cariad’ for ‘darling’ or ‘love’ and ‘cwtsh’ for ‘hug’. You can also tell an Anglo-Welsh writing style by their use of hyperbole (exaggeration). This stems from the tradition of Welsh bards (poets) who recited to the warriors to work up their ‘hwyl’, or ecstasy, before going into battle.
When was Wales? The Princes and the People
Llywelyn the Great (1172-1240) was a Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and eventually ruled over most of north and mid-Wales. By a combination of war and diplomacy he dominated Wales for 40 years. He was sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200 and made a treaty with King John of England that year. Llywelyn’s relations with John remained good for the next ten years. He married John’s natural daughter Joan in 1205, and when John arrested the prince of Powys in 1208, Llywelyn took the opportunity to annex southern Powys. In 1210, relations deteriorated, and John invaded Gwynedd in 1211. Llywelyn was forced to seek terms and to give up all lands east of the River Conwy, but was able to recover them the following year in alliance with the other Welsh princes. He allied himself with the barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. By 1216, he was the dominant power in Wales, holding a council at Aberdyfi that year to apportion lands to the other princes.
Following King John’s death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty of Worcester with his successor, Henry III, in 1218. During the next fifteen years, Llywelyn was frequently involved in fights with Marcher lords and sometimes with the king, but also made alliances with several major powers in the Marches. The Peace of Middle in 1234 marked the end of Llywelyn’s military career, as the agreed truce of two years was extended year by year for the remainder of his reign. He maintained his position in Wales until his death in 1240 and was succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llewelyn.
There is a famous legend about Llewelyn the Great, his son and his dog, Gelert, associated with Beddgelert in Snowdonia:
Prince Llewelyn had a dog named Gelert. It had been given to him by his father-in-law and from the first the Prince and the dog were firm friends.In the hunt there was no dog so brave and fearless as Gelert. Yet within Llewelyn’s palace no dog was so gentle and affectionate.
One fine morning in early autumn Prince Llewelyn was going hunting…Llewelyn walked into the midst of the hounds.
“Don and Juno, Seren and Morwen are here” he cried, “but where is Gelert?”
The huntsman blew his horn again at the prince’s command, but no Gelert answered the call. Llewelyn did not enjoy his ride that day. When evening came he was glad to ride back to his castle. As he rode through the gateway Gelert sprang forward to greet him. Llewelyn leapt from his horse to pat the dog, but he drew back…for Gelert’s jaws were dripping with blood. Llewelyn strode into his castle in search of his little son. The little prince was often in Gelert’s charge, and Llewelyn feared the dog had done some harm. He leapt up the stone staircase…and ran into his little son’s room, Gelert padding after him.
(picture with caption below)
He saw that the walls and floor were covered with bloodstains. The child’s cradle had been overturned. The baby prince was nowhere to be seen.
“Little son!” Llewelyn called, but there was no answering cry.
He raised the broken cradle, but the child was not beneath it. He searched the room, but failed to find…the young prince. Llewelyn saw the dog standing near.
Llewelyn drew his sword and thrust it up to the hilt into the dog’s body. Gelert moaning, and looking sadly at Llewelyn, sank down on the floor and died. Llewelyn cried out in sorrow as he saw the dog die. The prince’s cry was answered by another cry, faint, but loud enough to reach a father’s ear. In two strides Llewelyn was at a couch in the far corner of the room.
There, safely hidden, he found his young son…Behind the couch lay the body of a wolf.
“Alas, brave Gelert! But for you, my baby son would have been devoured by this fierce wolf.”
Llewelyn mourned deeply. He thought of what he could best do to preserve the memory of his brave dog. A great grave was dug and a monument was placed over the body. Llewelyn hung his horn and sceptre there as a tribute of respect. The grave can be seen there today at the place called the grave of Gelert – Bedd Gelert.
If Wales can be described as a nation in any sense in the late thirteenth century, it was certainly a divided one, divided into four parts; the marcher lordships established by the Anglo-Normans, mainly along the border and in the southern coastal plain, and the native princedoms of Gwynedd in the north, Deheubarth in the west, and Powys in the middle of the country. There was no overall kingdom, and the rivalry between the three princedoms was a cause or increasing concern to the English crown. So, in 1267, Henry III recognised Llewelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd as ‘prince of Wales’, ruling over the three native princedoms. However, Llewelyn did not want to accept the overall right of the Norman ‘Plantagenet’ kings to control Wales. He took advantage of their problems with the barons to expand his territories at the expense of both the marcher lords and the rival Welsh princes.
So in 1277 Edward I began a campaign to bring Llewelyn under control. Marching his army into north Wales, he quickly seized Fint, Rhuddlan and Deganwy, forcing Llewelyn into a negotiated peace. He was forced to surrender these lands between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a crippling fine on Llewelyn, which he had no chance of ever raising. Edward then waived this fine, demonstrating the control that he now had over the prince of Wales. However, in 1282, his brother Dafydd began a revolt against the Plantagenets, annoyed by his lack of reward for supporting the English crown. Edward then launched a full-scale war of conquest from the lands he now controlled in the north. He took control of the whole coast, including Anglesey, pushing Llewelyn into Snowdonia. Attempting to break out to the south, he was ambushed and killed at a bridge near Builth Wells. Edward’s troops then pushed into Gwynedd, capturing Prince Dafydd in June 1283.
The Conquest was then completed by the remarkable string of castles built by Edward at Flint, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Harlech, Aberystwyth and Builth. They stood both as bastions of military might and symbols of Plantagenet rule. However, the military occupation of Gwynedd was followed up by a constitutional settlement in 1284 imposing the Statute of Wales, which placed the former principality was placed under direct jurisdiction of English law. Further revolts were ruthlessly put down by 1295. The King then went on a great circular march through Wales to reinforce his authority and then made his eldest son as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle in 1301. This was a reminder that the rule of the native princes were over, and the only important Welsh family to keep their lands were the former rulers of Powys. Other Welsh lands were ‘parcelled up’ and granted to English lords. Wales has remained a ‘Principality’ ever since, though gradually including all the lands west of the border with England. The current Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles, was invested with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969, despite attempts by extreme nationalists to disrupt the ceremony.
Land of my Fathers
Welsh people are proud of their country for a variety of reasons. Many regret the loss of independence and imposed rule, as they see it, from a foreign country, though they now have their own government in Cardiff. For the large minority who speak Welsh, a majority in many of the western and northern towns and villages, the Royal National Eisteddfod is an important institution. It is held in a different place each year, announced a year and a day before. The Archdruid of the Gorsedd of the Bards presides over it and the mythology of the druidic ancestry symbolises that Wales is always ‘The Land of my Fathers’ and always, as the National Hymn goes on, a land of bards, singers and soldiers who spilled their blood for freedom.
A century after the Plantagenet Conquest of Wales was complete, a Welsh nobleman named Owen Glendwr lost a legal dispute with an English marcher lord. He turned to violence and his supporters declared him to be Prince of Wales, since he was descended from the princes of Powys. In June 1401 he defeated an English Army in open battle and by 1404 had succeeded in driving the English lords out of Wales. He then set up an independent Welsh Parliament in Machynlleth in mid-Wales. In 1407, Prince Henry, later to become Henry V, began the re-conquest of Wales. Using the English Navy to stop French ships bringing guns to the rebels, he then took the towns and castles back one at a time, clearing the surrounding lands of Glyndwr’s supporters before moving on to the next town. However, in 1412 Glyndwr led a successful ambush of the English Army at Brecon. However, he then vanished into the hills, never to be seen again. For these brief years under his rule, Wales became an independent country for the first and only time in its history.
A Nation Once Again?
A descendant of Glyndwr, Henry Tudor, finally defeated the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and again at Stoke in 1487, ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII was Welsh-speaking, as were his two sons, Arthur and Henry. With his accession to the English throne, and with his son Arthur as Prince of Wales, it looked like the Welsh were on top again. One observer wrote that they “may now be said to have recovered their former independence, for the most wise and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman”.
However, Wales had been ruled for centuries by Kings of England with no clear legal basis. It wasn’t until the Tudors that the relationship was codified. Between 1535 and 1542, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that established a formal system of government over Wales. The local lords put in place under the Plantagenets were stripped of their powers, which passed to the government. The marcher lordships were abolished, but Shrewsbury remained, in all but name, the administrative capital of the whole ‘region’ of the united realm. The Council of the Marches was responsible for maintaining law and order both in Wales and the English border shires, until it was abolished in the 1640s. For the first time, Welsh MPs were able to sit in the Westminster Parliament, and the border was legally established. Laws that discriminated against the Welsh were repealed and the counties of Wales were put on an equal basis as those of England. However, under the Act of Union of 1536, English became the official language to be used in all legal and government documents, though the majority of the people remained monolingual Welsh-speakers.
One of the results of these changes was that the language of the ruling classes became English, but they at least ensured that justices of the peace and the men running the shires were Welsh, so that Wales was not simply seen as an extension of England. Even Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, was eventually returned to Wales in 1972. Previous to the Act of Union, there were frequent border disputes like the one that led to the Glendower Rebellion. The Welsh were often falsely accused of stealing cattle or sheep, as in the English nursery rhyme, Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef. No doubt as many Welsh sheep got transferred across the indistinct border after a night raid in the opposite direction across Offa’s dike.
Like her father, Elizabeth Tudor was also brought up speaking Welsh, and, as Elizabeth I, was the last monarch to have learnt the language. She also had a number of important Welsh scientists, scholars and explorers at her court. Her family’s ancient Celtic Christian roots had become even more important after the Reformation. The Pope had excommunicated her, and she was constantly threatened by plots, rebellions and invasions. She claimed her right to be Supreme Governor of the Church through reference to the saints and chieftains of the ancient Britons, and the coronation oath still contains this reference.The Welsh adopted Jesus College, Oxford, founded in 1571, and the Inns of Court in London as the ways to complete their education.
Members of the Welsh elite were enthusiastic Renaissance people, building houses and art collections comparable with collections anywhere else in Europe. They were also keen supporters of the Reformation. Oliver Cromwell was so named because his ancestors had changed their name from Williams during the Reformation. Richard Williams was the grandson of a Welshman who had followed Henry Tudor’s red dragon standard to the Battle of Bosworth, and then settled at Putney, where he married his son Morgan to the niece of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister. Richard helped his uncle-in-law to suppress the monasteries and was rewarded with former church lands in Huntingdonshire. He took his uncle’s name, and three generations later, in 1599, Oliver Cromwell, God’s Englishman, was born in a town house in Huntingdon, otherwise he might have been known as God’s Welshman. The Cromwells were certainly strong admirers of Good Queen Bess, especially when the Scottish Stuart kings became unpopular. It is easy to forget that Scotland was seen as a hostile, foreign country when Oliver Cromwell was growing up and that it only became united with England, Wales and Ireland in 1707. Oliver’s favourite daughter was named Elizabeth, no doubt after her mother, but also after ‘Queen Elizabeth, of famous memory’.
The Protestant Reformation took root in Wales, with Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer coming out as early as 1547. These were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. The first Bible in Welsh was published in 1588, contributed greatly to the survival of the Welsh language. Catholicism survived, with St Winifred’s Well at Holywell in north Wales remaining an important shrine and centre of pilgrimage to today. Although most of the Welsh people enthusiastically embraced Protestantism, it was Nonconformity and Methodism which by the eighteenth century became more popular than Anglicanism. There was a close relationship between literacy and Methodism in the latter part of the century. In Caernafonshire, those areas with the highest attendance at Gruffydd Jones’ circulating schools between 1741 and 1777 were also those with the most Methodist chapels by 1800.
Though it was excluded from administration, the position Welsh gained as the language of religion helped to ensure its survival. Grammar School education was in English, but basic literacy in Welsh became widespread in the eighteenth century, due largely to the efforts of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, Gruffydd Jones and others, who sought to ensure that the people could read the Bible for themselves. There was a growing market for Welsh language books, which led to the establishment of the first Welsh printing presses in the early eighteenth century. Welsh medieval texts were collected and preserved. This enabled a Europe-wide rediscovery of the Celtic past and identification with its Celtic past helped the Welsh to assert their different identity from the English.
Interest in the bardic traditions was reawakened in the late eighteenth century and, under the direction of Iolo Morganwg, eisteddfodau re-emerged as vehicles for regional and national cultural activities. Druidism, long extinct, was revived through colourful, if invented, ceremonies. Celtomania went some way to convincing the English that the Welsh had something to offer the partnership.
Until the mid nineteenth century Wales remained an agrarian country, specialising in cattle-rearing, dairy products and cloth manufacture. The countryside was gradually enclosed and deforested, but settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer houses and lowland winter homes. Market and textile-manufacturing towns in south and mid-Wales became increasingly important in the eighteenth century.
The Welsh Assembly and Government
In 1979, a Referendum on the setting up of a Welsh Assembly saw the proposal defeated by a margin of four to one across Wales as a whole. It was nearly twenty years later, in 1998, that a second Referendum led to a narrow ‘Yes’ vote. Since the elections that followed, there has been a Welsh Assembly meeting in Cardiff, with the Welsh Government having responsibility over ‘devolved matters’, including education and health care.
The Valleys – When Coal was King
(see pictures below)
The history of Wales from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century was dominated by the growth and decline of the coal industry, and their social and economic consequences. Due to the demand for Welsh steam coal to power the industrial revolution and Britain’s expanding Empire, new and vibrant communities, with a unique life-style and culture, grew up in previously unpopulated areas of the two coalfields in north and south Wales. At its high point in 1913, the coal industry employed 250,000 men and women.
The Rhondda Valleys
The valleys of south Wales span out across the hinterland from the coastal ports and cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea like the fingers of an outstretched hand from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire. The best-known valleys are those of the Rhondda Fach and Fawr (‘little’ and ‘great’) in central Glamorgan. By 1906, people were moving into these valleys at a rate second in the world only to those arriving in the northern United States. They came from rural Wales, so that Wales as a whole retained its Welsh population at a time when other parts of Britain and Ireland were experiencing mass emigration. At the same time, many workers moved in from the English counties on the other side of the River Severn, especially from Somerset and Gloucestershire, both miners and farm-workers. Long terraces of houses were built in rows along the steep hillsides overlooking the pits and colliery winding-towers.
These were societies dominated by one industry, Coal, though there were also iron and steel foundries at both the ‘heads’ and ‘feet’ of the valleys. From the age of eleven or twelve, then fourteen, most boys started work with their fathers underground, working eleven-hour shifts. They were called ‘trappers’, because they would take care of the doors on the tramways, opening and closing them for the horse-pulled trams full of coal, while their fathers would cut the coal at the coal ‘face’ using picks, loading the trams using shovels. They were called colliers. Sometimes the boys would push or pull the trucks themselves, so they were called ‘hauliers’. Their wages were often decided by how much coal they and their fathers could get to the surface by the end of each shift. Often the seams of coal were very thin and could only be worked by the colliers lying on their sides, and conditions were hot, ‘sticky’ (humid) and wet, with water running through the rock. At the same time, there was a lot of dust, from both the coal and the rock, so miners developed, and died early, from the effects of lung diseases like pneumoconiosis and silicosis. The amount of dust in the atmosphere would sometimes result in serious, spontaneous fires. Gases were released from the rock and, since explosives had to be used to blast open new faces, there were frequent disasters in which hundreds and thousands of miners were killed. The worst disaster happened at the Senghenydd Colliery in 1913, when 430 colliers were killed. Even a spark from the tools used was enough to cause a major explosion, and roof-falls were also common, resulting in miners being buried alive or suffocating. The miners ate and went to the toilet underground in the same places underground.
Coming home was difficult because the moleskin trousers would be stiff with the mixture of sweat, dust and mud as they dried in the summer or froze in winter. The boys were so exhausted that they fell asleep over dinner, then they would have to wait their turn to wash in front of a zinc bath in front of the fire. The women would be continually boiling water, since there could be as many as eight or nine men and boys working in the colliery. While the men were at work, the women would be continually fighting a losing battle to get the dust and dirt out of the house, as well as out of the clothes. The eldest daughter would stay at home to help her mother, while the others would find work as maids, in shops, or sewing. Social life revolved around the pubs, the miners’ clubs, or ‘institutes’ which included libraries and theatre halls, and the nonconformist chapels, where there were social and cultural events on every night of the week, as well as services on Sundays. The children would also go to Sunday schools, which organised picnics and ‘outings’ in the summer. Many men belonged to Male Voice Choirs, which regularly competed against each other, and there were also Community Singing events, Gymanfa Ganu, in which whole chapels and colliery villages would take part.
In 1910-11 there were a series of strikes in the Cambrian Combine, in which many Rhondda miners worked. The company refused to increase wages, although they were making huge profits at that time. There was little strike pay at that time, and poor relief was restricted to those who lived in rented property or were homeless. The miners organised soup kitchens, communal lunches, and raised money for them by singing in the wealthier towns in south Wales. There were some riots and violent incidents at Tonypandy in 1910 when policemen from England were brought in to keep the miners ‘in line’. Churchill, then Home Secretary, sent soldiers to south Wales, though they weren’t used. In 1926 the mineowners tried to cut the miners’ wages and locked them out of the collieries when their Trade Union refused to accept this. Other Trade Unions decided to call a General Strike throughout Britain in support, but this only lasted eight days. However, the miners stayed out for six months before they were starved back to work. Others left the valleys for good to find work in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford, where car manufacture and electrical engineering were expanding, mainly concentrated in the Midlands. To begin with there was a trickle of single, independent men, but this was soon followed by whole families.
Wage-cuts, lay-offs and the forceful use of police during the 1910s and1920s led to the the development of strong traditions of trades unionism and socialist politics throughout the south Wales Coalfield, especially in the Rhondda.
However, just as Wales had benefited from the ‘boom’ time in the coal industry before the First World War, so it suffered more than any other other region from the slump in world markets for coal, iron and steel. Average unemployment reached 31% by the end of the thirties. In the valleys, however, this figure often reached more than two thirds of the working population in particular towns and villages and by the 1930s only Durham had more people on poor relief. Even those in work in 1931 were on wages which were far worse than they had been five years earlier. At first, the National Government tried to persuade people to leave the valleys for work in England, believing that anything they did to make life better for the poor and unemployed would only have a negative effect on migration.
However, by 1934, when Britain as a whole was recovering from the Depression, the government decided to try to tackle the widespread unemployment and poverty in south Wales by providing incentives to industries to move into the area. Most of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire became part of the ‘Special Area’. However, the effects of these measures were slow to develop, and inadequate in scale. At the same time, the effects of the high levels of poverty had become devastating, especially the accompanying levels of disease and malnutrition, as well as infant and maternal deaths. The incidence of tuberculosis was 130% above the natural average. Added to this, the results of outward migration meant that the number of Welsh-speakers, which had increased and then remained stable over the previous decades, now went into decline. Local shops and services were no longer viable, and shopkeepers committed suicide rather than collect the money they were owed by customers who had no money to pay for essential food and clothing for their families. Others sold up and left for England to join the younger miners in their families. They were often deacons and elders in chapels, which were therefore now losing the leaders of their already dwindling congregations.
Between 1920 and 1940 Wales lost about 450,000 people, permanently, as a result of migration, 90% of whom were from the three counties of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Breconshire. Since about 10% of migrants failed to settle in the ‘new industry’ towns and cities of the Midlands and the south East, the number of those experiencing ‘the exodus’ may have been well over a quarter of a million, a figure equivalent to one in five of the people of Wales in 1921. Very few of these went with the bribes offered by the Ministry of Labour, or under their control. Most of those who found their way to Cowley, Coventry and Birmingham did so with the help and organisation of their own families, or the friends they knew through Rugby and sporting clubs, chapels, brass bands, choirs, and other cultural institutions. It therefore wasn’t just the individuals and families who moved, but many of the organisations which they had set up in the valleys, and now transferred to the new places they moved to. Membership of these traditional Welsh cultural institutions helped the migrants to settle and integrate. Fifty years later, the Welsh immigrants to Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry still retained both the accents of the particular valleys in which they grew up and began work, as well as their active membership of the remaining clubs and societies with Welsh origins and associations in these cities. Many of them had served in prominent positions in voluntary organisations and civic life, even becoming Lord Mayors. Among their children, there were a significant array of local sporting and musical ‘celebrities’.
(see picture below)
The Rhondda and other south Wales valleys are famous for their sheep. Having lived on the hillsides above the rows of terraced houses for many generations, they seem to have developed genetic characteristics which enable them to jump over six-foot fences and all many of flowers (including roses), as well as grass. This may be because of the polluted nature of much of the vegetation, resulting from more than a century of coalmining and the soot produced by processing plants, pit-head chimney stacks and blast furnaces. In the Aberdare Valley, for example, the grass is often black. When the sheep eat this grass, their stomachs swell even more than usual, especially in hot summers. The shepherds and farmers have to puncture their stomachs with knitting needles in order to release the accumulated gas, or they can die painfully, sometimes rolling down the steep hillsides onto the roads below or, worse still, onto the bonnets of passing cars. The wandering, individualist nature of these sheep (they have been known to visit all types of shops, including wool shops) means that the farmers have a difficult task shepherding them in. They have become the subject of modern legends, their dramatic abilities even described on radio and displayed on TV! They have even been known to fall through the flat roofs of schools in the valleys, right in the middle of examination sessions!
Saint David’s City
(see power-point pictures)
David was born in the year 500, probably the son of Sandde, a famous prince, and Non, who was also a Cymric saint. He grew up in the Christian faith and became an important churchman, taking part in great conferences and assemblies. He became Primate, or Archbishop, of Wales. When he was thirty he founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn which was recognised as the centre of the Church in Wales. This became St David’s (Ty Dewi – ‘David’s House’) where the small cathedral city now stands, the smallest city in the UK. He founded many churches throughout Wales, 53 of which have his name. By the time of the Norman Conquest of England, St David’s had become an important centre of pilgrimage.
Patrick, the monk who introduced Christianity to Ireland was, in fact, an escaped British slave. He was born in late Roman times, about AD 389, the son of a small landowner at Banwen in Glamorgan, who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen a band of Irish raiders captured him and took him back to Ireland where he was made to look after the sheep of an Irish chieftain in Antrim. It was during these six years of captivity that he decided to become a monk. He escaped by ship to the coast of Brittany, where he trained in a monastery, returning to his home in Britain, before beginning his mission to Ireland. Returning to Auxerre, he was ordained there, before sailing back to Ireland to begin his legendary mission.
As with Patrick, many legends have grown up around the name of Welsh patron saint. One of them tells how when David and his monks first arrived in the Glyn Rhosyn area, it was terrorised by a bandit named Boca. He was overcome by David’s personality and became converted to Christianity, although it took David longer to convert his wife! Another story tells of how when David prayed for fresh water a well sprang up at his feet. This useful miracle was repeated at several other sites, including Ffynnon Feddyg. A further tale describes a hill rising up under the saint so that all could see and hear him preaching.The name of the village where this happened, Llanddewibrefi, also bears his name: The Church of St David.
Symbols and Celebrations
St. David’s Day (Dydd Gwyl Dewi) is the first of the four national days, or patron saints’ days in the British calendar. Saint David (Dewi Sant in Welsh) is the patron saint of Wales. David and his followers lived quietly in Wales, didn’t eat meat and drank only water. David became a famous teacher and an important monk in The Celtic Church. He died in 589, probably on 1st March when, according to legend, a host of angels bore his spirit to heaven with great singing to his glory and honour. 1st March is not a holiday, but there are special concerts and competitions called eisteddfodau all over the country on this day.
(see the separate power-point on St David’s Day)
The Red Dragon
(see pictures below)
The dragon is a popular mythical beast in the folklore of the British Isles as a whole. In fact, the first dragon standard to be flown in battle, according to dark-age records, was the white dragon of the first Saxons to land on the eastern coasts of Britain around AD 450.
The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) of Wales comes from the The Mabinogion, the cultural epic of Wales, which tells the story of the battle between the white dragon and the red dragon for control of Britain. According to the tale, the pained shrieks of the fighting dragons caused women to miscarry and crops to fail. The British king Lludd consulted his wise brother Llefelys, who told him to dig a pit and fill it with mead (a strong liquor made with honey). When the dragons drank the mead and fell asleep, Lludd imprisoned them in the pit.
The story is continued by the ninth-century monk Nennius in his Historia Britonum. Centuries later, King Vortigern tried to build a castle at Dinas Emrys, but each night the walls collapsed. A boy who grew up to be the wizard Merlin told the king about the two Dragons, who had continued their battle underground. The dragons were released and continued their fight until the Red Dragon triumphed. Later, in his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) wrote that this victory was a sign of the coming of King Arthur, also known as Arthur Pendragon. In Welsh, Pen Draig means ‘Chief Dragon’. Nennius also wrote about the legendary Artorius and his battles against the Saxons, in which he halted the Saxon advance at the Battle of Badon Hill in about AD 515 (see the extracts from Gildas and Nennius in PPP).
Over the next thousand years since the Arthurian ‘period’, many British kings used the dragon standard. The legendary seventh-century king Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd used the Red Dragon as his standard. Alfred The Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. Both Athelstan and Harold II also flew it, and in 1191 Richard the Lionheart carried a dragon standard on the Third Crusade. Henry V flew the Dragon standard at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which large numbers of Welsh archers fought. Henry VII, who claimed Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon as his ancestor, raised the Red Dragon on the Tudor white and green colours, giving rise to the Welsh flag still flown today.
Leeks and Daffodils
Wales has two national emblems – the leek and the daffodil. The leek is a herb of the onion family, and it was worn as a battle emblem by the Britons against the Saxons, and again by Welsh soldiers at Poitiers in the Hundred Years’ War. In legend, the leek was said to have the property of carrying its wearer, uninjured, through battle. It became the official emblem of the Welsh Guards Regiment, worn on St David’s Day. Over recent decades the leek has given way to the daffodil, seen as David’s flower, appropriately blooming around 1st March. The name is a corruption of Asphodel, which grew on the banks of the Acheron, delighting the spirits of the dead. It also grew, according to legend, on the Elysian fields, which may be why they are placed on graves. In Wales, if you are the first to find a daffodil in bloom in your village, they say that you will have more gold than silver for a year.
Sport: Fields of Dreams
Gareth Edwards was the greatest Rugby player in the world during his career, which spanned fifteen seasons. Still a student when he gained his first cap for Wales against France, this was the start of a run of fifty-three consecutive international appearances. He captained his country thirteen times from his position behind the scrum (scrum-half). During his career he helped Wales to win seven Championships, five ‘Triple Crowns’ (victories over the other British countries) and three ‘Grand-Slams’ (victories in all four matches). He also scored what most experts still agree was the finest ‘try’ (touch-down) of all time when appearing for the invitation Barbarian team in 1973. He also toured Australia and New Zealand with the British Lions three times, also playing against the visiting All Black team in 1971, the Lions first ever series win against New Zealand.
Although Rugby is the most popular team sport, Wales has two Premier League teams, Cardiff City (‘the bluebirds’) and Swansea City (‘the Swans’). Cardiff have just been promoted to the Premiership after a gap of fifty years outside the top division. Swansea had a great team in the 1980s, and won promotion again two seasons ago. They finished high enough last season to win a place in European competition.
Eisteddfodau and Shows
The Royal Welsh Show
This is held annually in Builth Wells, and attracts participants from all over the British Isles. The whole of rural life is there, from combine harvesters to prize bulls and sheep-shearing.
The International Eisteddfod
Held in Llangollen, a north Wales town, in July each year, this event draws participants and competitors from all over the world. Its folk-dance competitions are particularly colourful, and singers can use any language, making it open to all.
Writers of Wales
Dai Smith is a historian and writer who was born in Tonypandy in the Rhondda in 1945. He is the son of a Yorkshire-man and a Welsh-speaking woman, who grew up speaking English. “You did, unless you were the son of the manse” he told one reporter. Sons of the manse are bogey figures in the new Wales which began to emerge in the 1980s when he was doing most of his writing. He remembers the sense of community that was left over from the Depression: “You couldn’t survive as a family in the Depression. You were self-sufficient (only) as a street.” He also remembers the street parties and the the local jazz concerts. But even then, in the ‘fag-end’ of the tradition he describes in his books, it was not a ‘parochial’ society. It looked outwards.
After school in Barry he read history at Oxford and then studied for a further degree in Modern Literature at Columbia University, New York. He returned to south Wales in 1971 to lecture in history, researching for his doctorate on the south Wales miners at University College, Swansea. In 1976 he became a lecturer in the History of Wales at University College, Cardiff, returning to live in the valleys, in Pontypridd. He returned to a Wales in which there was an enormous upsurge in the writing of Welsh history, but in which industrial Wales was largely ignored. The Valleys were in decline, with the mines closing down one after another and with them the miner’s libraries. Nobody seemed interested, because the influential people of Wales were what he described as ‘born-again Welshmen’, English-speakers who had learnt Welsh, often changing their names in the process. The Wales he knew was urban and English-speaking, because throughout the twentieth century only about half of the Welsh have been able to speak their own language. He believes that one of the greatest myths ever perpetrated is that the Welsh language was ‘murdered’ or ‘kicked in the teeth’ by the English state.
At the centre of this myth is the ‘Welsh Not’, the wooden placard hung about the necks of pupils heard speaking Welsh at school. In myth, this is the size of a breadboard. In one of his TV programmes Dai Smith handles one of the few surviving ‘Welsh Nots’: it is the size of a matchbox. Nor is there any evidence of a directive handed down by an English bureaucracy to schools. The ‘Welsh Not’ is much earlier, being used only in the voluntary schools, and then only because ambitious Welsh parents asked for it to be used to encourage their children to use English as a medium of instruction alongside Welsh, in areas where little English was spoken outside school.
Dai Smith is a social historian who has narrated the events of the Tonypandy disturbance of 1910 and explored the radical and socialist traditions of Wales from David Lloyd George to Aneurin Bevan. He sees the Welsh as a people of paradoxes. Less than a quarter of them speak their own language; they have adopted a national game, Rugby, invented in the English public schools; even their national costume is a nineteenth-century invention. In his book and TV series, Wales? Wales! (1984), he explored what it really means to be Welsh. In it, he argued that the myths around Welsh identity had been used and added to by a ‘Cymricizing’ leisure industry as much as by nationalists. Wales was busy reinventing its past to serve the needs of the present. He also wrote about the English-language literature of Wales, discussing poets like R. S. Thomas and Idris Davies as well as novelists like Lewis Jones and Raymond Williams. He ruthlessly dissected Richard Llewellyn’s hugely popular book, How Green Was My Valley, which became an Oscar-winning film.
As an English-Speaking Welshman, Dai Smith has often felt in the past like the Welsh language has been put on a life support machine by the British Government. More recently, of course, it has been supported directly from Cardiff, by the Welsh Assembly. The heavy subsidy for writing in Welsh, he argues, ignores how life in Wales has been lived for more than a century. Anglo-Saxons called the people ‘weallas’, strangers. This, Dai Smith claimed, is what the majority in Wales has been increasingly made to feel like in their own country, this time by their own countrymen.
Dylan Thomas has often been described as one of the greatest writers in the English language, certainly of the first half of the twentieth century in which he lived. This is not just because of his poetry, written between 1934 and 1952, but also due to his short stories and plays. He was also a radio broadcaster, so we have many of his own recordings of his work. His work appeals to readers of all ages, including children, for whom his stories of his own childhood are particularly interesting.
His origins are firmly rooted in south-west Wales. He himself wrote that his mother “came from the agricultural depths of Carmarthen” and his father was the son of a railway worker, “Thomas the Guard” in Johnstown, a small Carmathenshire village, described in his short story, A Visit to Grandpa’s. Both parents were Welsh-speakers, but Dylan grew up with only a few words and phrases in the language, although his name is taken from The Mabinogion, the great collection of medieval Welsh tales. He was born in Swansea in 1914 and lived in Cwmdonkin Drive, in a modest, semi-detached house on a steep hill with panoramic views across the town and the bay. His father was English master at Swansea Grammar School and Dylan was encouraged to use his library. Besides poetry books, young Dylan’s other passion was the theatre, and was a good actor at school. In 1932 he acted in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Little Theatre.
After leaving school, he worked briefly as a junior reporter on the South Wales Evening Post. His first poem to be published in a national magazine was No man Believes (1933), but more significant was the publication of his poem Light in The Listener (1934), which was praised by T S Eliot and Stephen Spender, two of the leading London poets of the day. His first book, 18 Poems was published just before Christmas in the same year. This led him to London and the publication of his second book by J M Dent in 1936. It was there that he met Caitlin Macnamara, a stunningly attractive Irish dancer. She was modelling for the painter Augustus John, who later painted Dylan’s two most famous portraits. He introduced them and within a year they got married in Penzance, Cornwall. He had his work published in the US in 1939, and also began supplementing his modest income from writing by joining Wynford Vaughan Thomas at the BBC. He eventually made over eighty scripted broadcasts, some of which have become classics of the genre. The renowned Welsh actor Richard Burton was full of praise for Dylan’s broadcasting abilities.
In the late summer of 1944 Dylan, Caitlin and their young daughter Aeronwy moved to a wood-and-asbestos bungalow about a mile outside the seaside town of New Quay in Cardiganshire. Dylan and Caitlin had some London colleagues staying with him when they were attacked by Captain Killick, a Captain in the Commandos. He was carrying a machine gun, which he fired into their living room, and a grenade. He was charged with attempted murder and sent for trial to the Cardiganshire Assizes. He was acquitted and moved away.
Dylan, Caitlin and Aeronwy moved to ‘The Boathouse’ in Laugharne in 1949. He had first visited what he called “the strangest town in Wales” in 1934 and had briefly lived there in 1938. Like many other writers and artists, including Edward Thomas, Augustus John and Richard Hughes, Dylan loved the town, and felt secure there. His friend and fellow-writer, Vernon Watkins, described it as being Dylan’s “last refuge and sanity in a nightmare world.” Settled there, with some degree of permanence, Dylan had a new burst of creativity, producing some of his finest poems. In 1950 he published his most popular story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an amalgam of two other stories, in an American magazine. Working high above the estuary in the primitive wooden structure which was his Workshed, he also wrote one of his best-loved poems, Do not go gentle…there, as well as working on his radio play Under Milk Wood there, in between trips to the US.
These American trips were exhausting, but necessary, given his financial situation. Dylan prepared carefully for his readings, copying out each poem he intended to read into his best ‘copperplate’ hand-writing. He travelled huge distances from city to city and campus to campus. Not only was he expected to perform onstage, but also at the faculty parties which followed. Among those he met were Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin, whose films Dylan loved, identifying strongly with the character of the vulnerable little tramp. It was an amalgam of While in New York he fell into the Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village with the same enthusiasm he had greeted Fitzrovia in London in the thirties. John Malcolm Brinnin chronicled these last years in his book Dylan Thomas in America, which came to be hated by Caitlin and Dylan’s friends in Britain because of its descriptions of Dylan’s drunken behaviour. On his fourth and final, fatal trip to America, Dylan collapsed on the streets and died in New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital on 9 November 1953, in circumstances which remain disputed.
Although Dylan Thomas’ reputation was quickly established as a poet in the 1930s, he is now better known for his brilliant radio play, Under Milk Wood, and for his wonderfully humorous stories based on his childhood and adolescent experiences of Wales. He was fascinated by the small-town characters which surrounded him, especially in Laugharne, which he re-named Llareggub (spell it backwards!) Their conversations are gently mimicked, while the sounds, sights and smells of those seaside towns he describes so wittily are as fresh and amusing today as they were more than half a century ago.
R S Thomas was born in March 1913. His reputation as a poet has been international for more than a generation, but his heart and soul belongs to the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales, where he was both poet and priest. There he was inspired by the rugged and challenging landscape as well as by the people he met and ministered to. He had been a priest in successive parishes in Wales before he reached the last parish before Ireland, Aberdaron. As you travel down the peninsula, the land becomes more and more stark, narrowing to the headlands at the tip where the sea takes over. Thomas’ poems and the views connect with each other, encouraging us to explore the questions which arise from both the poetry and the landscape. There are few poets who ask as many questions as R S Thomas. They invite us to explore, and to take to mind and heart questions that have no easy answers, or that are unanswerable.
Waldo Williams (1904-1972):
Williams was a native of Pembrokeshire and, in between writing, a junior school teacher. His poems, written in Welsh, are very mystical and intense, always relating to his Christian vision of the oneness of all mankind. His mastery of the language in a great variety of verse forms, often original and individual, and his use of imagery, give an unusual force and freshness to his expression of ancient themes.
A strong pacifist, he was once imprisoned for his refusal to contribute taxes for military purposes. He was a very reserved Welshman, greatly loved by many. Late in life he received a long-deserved Arts Council prize. His one volume of verse, Dail Pren, won him an enduring place in Welsh literature. Here is part of one of his best-loved poems in translation:
One short minute before the sun goes from the sky,
One gentle minute before the night starts on its journey,
To remember the forgotten things
Lost now in the dust of times gone by.
The achievement and art of early generations,
Small dwellings and great halls,
The fine-wrought legends scattered centuries ago,
The gods that no one knows about by now.
And the little words of transient languages,
They were gay on the lips of men,
And pleasant to the ear in the chatter of little children,
But no tongue calls upon them any longer.
Click on the links below for power-points and pdf docs>
MARY JONES WALK english
Story of Wales
A few weeks ago I posted a blog on the ‘Heroes of the Hungarian Holocaust’ which dealt with recent articles from The Hungarian Review, one of them about the poet Miklós Radnoti, who died on a forced ‘death’ march in November 1944. Four of his last poems from his camp notebook appeared in English in the same publication, but since then all his major poems have been published in a bilingual edition, so I thought I would post them one by one on the anniversary of the day on which they were written, exactly seventy years ago.
First of all, however, here’s some information about the poet from Zsuzsanna Ozsváth’s introduction to the volume published by Corvina Press (details below):
Miklós Radnóti was one of Hungary’s greatest poets of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest in 1909, he was murdered by members of the Hungarian armed forces in the small village of Abda in western Hungary, on an unknown date between the sixth and tenth of November in 1944. Caught up in the whirlwind of the Hungarian Holocaust which followed the Nazi takeover of the country in March 1944, he suffered unspeakable deprivation and died a horrifying, anonymous death. However, he left behind poems of the utmost beauty and rarity that both express and illuminate Hungarian culture. Many of them covey moods and perceptions untainted by the horrors, while others offer first-hand accounts of the wholesale murder. Taken as a whole, they reveal the wide range of Radnóti’s imagination and the obligation he felt to give testimony to an existence engulfed by catastrophe. As well as being masterworks in the annals of the poetry of the last century, they are also documents of destruction, much as Wilfred Owen’s poetry also serves to document the suffering of the trenches of the Great War. Through them Radnóti subverted the horror of the Holocaust, in helping us to understand it.
Radnóti also witnessed the rise of Nazism, and, like many in different walks of life, fought for Hungary’s freedom and independence from it. He insisted on the ethical mission of art, but the bestiality unleashed upon European Jews of the time destroyed both life and art. Taken by a freight train from Hungary to Yugoslavia in May 1944 and forced to trek back as the German army evacuated the Balkans, he was shot in the neck and buried in a mass grave with twenty-one other forced labourers. When his body was exhumed a year and a half later, his last poems, stained by dirt and blood, were found in the pocket of his raincoat. Within a few years of the end of the war, his poems, including these resurrected ones, became well-known to Hungarians, exalting and moving millions of them in the continuing gloom which followed. Radnóti’s place among the Hungarian masters was confirmed. Until now, they have not been so well-known outside Hungary, but Ozsváth and Turner’s volume seeks to call the attention of the English-speaking world to them, giving them the means to resound… and communicate the vital, immediate sense which characterizes the original.
From its very beginning, Radnóti’s life was overshadowed by tragedy. At his birth, both his mother and twin brother died. However, because his father re-married in his infant years, Miklós was at first unaware of the double death, and only heard of it at the age of twelve, after his father’s funeral. He spent the next six years with distant relatives and, after graduating from secondary school, he left Hungary to study textile technology in Czechoslovakia. A year later, he returned to Hungary to study literature. However, the ‘Nemerus Clausus Act’ of September 1920, the first anti-Semitic law in Europe, required that the number of Jews in Hungarian universties be reduced to six per cent. Barred from the University of Budapest, Radnóti enrolled at Szeged University, where he read French and Hungarian literature and was awarded a PhD in 1934.
However, by this time the Horthy regime had renewed its relationship with the populist right-wing forces which had fomented chauvinism and anti-Semitism since the end of the Great War. They joined a new, radical Right that blamed the short-lived Soviet Republic of Béla Kun for the country’s ills and associated the Jews with it, as many of them had appeared visible in its reign. The Jews were also blamed for the international banking crises which led to the Depression. Despite its longstanding liberal literary traditions stretching back into the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, much of the city’s recent identity had become intertwined with the radical Right which had set itself up there in 1919, organising murder squads that moved from place to place, killing Jews and those suspected of being Communist sympathisers. Although the atrocities stopped after Horthy’s assumption of power in 1920, the politics found its way into public institutions so that, when proto-Fascism re-emerged from the end of the twenties, the university proved too weak to keep out the rabble. and it became a battleground between the ultra-Right and the defenseless Jewish students.
In response to the country’s shift to the right, there were a number of groups arising on the centre-left, liberal, populist and social democratic. Continuing in the liberal tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Hungarian poets, Radnóti was among the young people in favour of social change. He joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a populist movement addressing the plight of Hungarian peasants, supporting agrarian reform. Drawing on Hungarian folklore, they identified with the national poet Sándor Petőfi and musicians like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Inspired by the left-wing idealism common among writers and artists of the time, both inside Hungary and from outside, Radnóti cherished the values he developed in this group for the rest of his life.
He also became interested in Catholicism at this time. Many of the intellectual conversations of Jewish literati and artists took place at a time when anti-Semitism was a swelling tide, and many Jews became aware of the fragility of their Jewish faith and ‘ethnicity’. They were, once again, scapegoats, blamed for not only for the excesses of both Communism and capitalism but also labelled as aliens and even enemies of their native country. Ever since Petőfi became the voice of the fight for Hungarian independence in 1848-9, being a poet in Hungary meant becoming part of that struggle, a heritage cherished by all great Hungarian poets, who were also expected to be exemplary patriots. To convert to Catholicism meant being able to tear down the walls of separation, to free oneself which many secular, well-integrated Jews found wearisome in any case. When the political pressure called into question their very identity, several artists became Catholics. Radnóti was one who embraced an aesthetic Catholicism with a view of life which included faith in the redemptive quality of art, socialist concerns, and an overwhelming compassion for human suffering. It took him fifteen years to convert, he became a Catholic at heart in his late teens. Ozsváth has observed that he interwove Biblical symbolism and the best of the humanist tradition in his poetry and focused passionately on a noble patriotism, one which countered and challenged the brutal and militant chauvinism of official Hungary. He insisted on his identity as a Catholic and a Hungarian poet for the rest of his life, though his country branded him as a Jew. Once identified as such, regardless of his own detentions, he was effectively sentenced to death.
After publishing his first collections of poems, Radnóti moved to Budapest in 1934. Despite his teacher’s certification, he remained ‘unemployed’ for the rest of his life, though he became a regular contributor to Nyugat (Occident), the most prestigious literary journal in twentieth century Hungary. He became part of what the poet and editor Mihály Babits described as the third generation of the journal’s distinguished literary tradition. He accepted this responsibility for the direction Hungary was taking, trying to warn against the impending disaster. From the mid-thirties, a significant group of Hungary’s artists and writers, from Bartók to Babits, turned against the increasingly pro-Nazi political tide and were joined by some of the country’s leaders, who began to anticipate the catastrophic consequences of its alliance with Nazi Germany. However, Nazi infiltration and pro-Fascist ideology had already made Hungary economically dependent on the Third Reich so that hopes for political independence proved futile. At the same time, Hungary’s cultural life continued to flower and its poets wrote some of its most beautiful poetry. It’s scientists and mathematicians also began to achieve international recognition for their original discoveries and achievements.
Despite his darkest premonitions, Radnóti’s work also continued to flourish, especially after his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, who had been the central focus of his love poems since the late twenties. By the late thirties, he was widely recognised in literary circles. However, within three years, from 1938-41, three sequences of anti-Jewish laws were introduced. The first two defined who was Jewish and regulated the percentage of Jewish participation in various economic activities. The third created a forced labour system that became responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including the poet’s. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, he anticipated the full-scale destruction of Hungary, and became sick in the stomach, ridden by insomnia and near to collapse. Nevertheless, he recovered sufficiently to produce work of great innovation in the lyrical tradition, combining the classical forms of the ancients with modern sensibilities. In 1938 he published a collection of poems, Steep Road, and in 1940, three more collections, including a volume of prose writing, a selection of translations and his own Selected Poetry. Two more volumes followed in his lifetime.
Much of what he started, however, he was unable to finish, as from 1940 he was called up three times into slave labour units. He was worked to exhaustion in coalfields, sugar plants and ammunition factories during his first two call-ups and in his last he was taken to the copper mines in Bor, Yugoslavia. However, under pressure from Soviet and Partisan forces, the German Army was forced to evacuate the Balkans. Radnóti’s squad was force-marched back to Hungary, to be transferred from there to slave-labour camps in Germany. Cold weather, exhaustion, hunger, savage beatings and killings meant that of marching column which contained of 3,600 men on leaving Bor, only eight hundred crossed the Hungarian border. Marching on through Western Hungary in November, Radnóti began to lose his strength. His feet were covered with open blisters, such that he could no longer walk. It was probably on 8 November that the squad reached a brickyard in a town near Győr, where they spent the night. Next day three NCOs of the Hungarian Armed Forces separated Radnóti and twenty-one others from the column. Crowding them onto two borrowed carts, they took them first to a hospital, then to a school housing refugees. Neither had room for them, so the soldiers took them to the dam near Abda, where they were ordered to dig a ditch. The guards then shot them one by one into the ditch.
Radnóti’s last volume of poetry, Foamy Sky, was published posthumously in 1946, a volume which did not then contain the last five poems. Only after his body was exhumed were these five poems found, inscribed in the small camp notebook he had obtained in Bor. Two years later, the entire and complete volume was re-published. Since then it has been re-published many times in Hungary, but never in English, until now. Ozsváth concludes:
…the unforgettable formal music of his poems not only preserves his most personal perceptions but also echoes the lives and culture of all those who were murdered in the Holocaust. And while they give account of the darkest hours of history, they also demonstrate the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over death.
An extract from I Know Not What…
I know not what to strangers this dear lanscape might mean,
to me it is my birthplace, this tiny spot of green;
ringed now with fire, it was, once, my childhood rocking me;
I grew there as a fragile branch from the parent tree;
O may my body sink back to that life-giving soil.
This land is home to me: for if a bush should kneel
before my feet I know its name just as its flower,
I know who walks the road, whither and at what hour,
I know what it might mean if reddening pain should fall
dripping some summer dusk down the lintel or the wall.
For him who flies above it, a map is all he sees,
this living scape of being but symbols and degrees;
and in the park the trace of loves who once loved me,
the honey taste of kisses sweet as bilberry,
and on the way to school you’d not step on a crack,
lest you’d forget your lesson, or break your mother’s back;
the pilot cannot see that paving-stone, that grass:
to see all this, there is no instrument or glass.
For we are guilty too, as others are,
we know how we have sinned, in what, and when and where;
but working people live here, poets in innocence,
breast-feeding infants with their dawned intelligence,
and one day it will brighten, hid now in safety’s dark,
till peace shall write upon our land its shining mark
and answer our choked words in sentences of light.
With great wings cover us, O guardian cloud of night.
17 January, 1944
Zsuzsanna Ozváth & Frederick Turner (2014), Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti. Budapest: Corvina Books.
Francis R Jones & Attila Balázs (2013), Forced March and Poems from a Muddy Notebook, in The Hungarian Review, Volume IV No. 6.